The first opening of the Australian Parliament after the election of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labour Government has proved a historic moment in the history of Australia – with an apology finally being made to indigenous people - write Doug Hynd and Simon Barrow.
After years of calling for an official recognition of the wrongs done to them by settlers, many Aboriginal leaders and communities (“the first Australians”) were today rejoicing at the gesture. But they point out that concrete resources are needed to address the legacy of historical injustices.
A traditional welcome to the country by Indigenous elders was held in federal Parliament for the first time, as a key element in the ceremony surrounding the opening of Parliament the day before the formal apology to ‘the stolen generations.’
The lawn of the parliament building also contained a message in candles spelling out the words, ‘A First Step – Sorry’, before Prime Minister Rudd made his speech, which contained the word sorry three times in its opening sentences. There could be no mistake about the intention.
Ngambri elder Matilda House Williams says the ‘welcome to country’ acknowledges her people and their ancestor:. “It’s a good, honest and decent and very human act to reach out to make sure everyone has a place and is welcome,” she declared.
Ms Williams says it is a significant time for her people. “The best time in the history of the Australian Parliament,” she commented. “A Prime Minister has honoured us, the first people of this land, the Ngambri people, by seeking a welcome to country. In doing this, the Prime Minister shows what we call proper respect.”
Mr Rudd acknowledged that the Welcome to Country was a historic occasion.
“Despite the fact that parliaments have been meeting here for the better part of a century, today is the first time that as we open the Parliament of the nation that we are officially welcomed to country by the first Australians of this nation,” he said.
The text of the apology, given as the first element of business by the new parliament, was tabled ahead of time.
The opening lines acknowledge the wider history of mistreatment that goes well beyond the specific matters that the apology is directed to.
The text, while it is directed specifically at the concerns of the stolen generations, is clear and unequivocal in its acknowledgement of the role of governments and lawmakers.
The challenge faced by the Rudd government will now be to deliver on its commitment to closing the gap in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity between indigenous Australians and the wider Australian community.
The strength of the wording may surprise skeptics. The response of the indigenous community in their passion to be present in Canberra for this event has similarly surprised the media who have dismissed this as a purely symbolic gesture.
The moral significance of this event for the indigenous community has yet again revealed the gap in understanding between the two communities as to the reality and pain of the history of violence and injustice that has been experienced by the original Australians.
The text of the address, conveyed by the ABC, is as follows:
Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written. We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australian. A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have changed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country.